Touched by Fire
For half a century, Ishmael Soto has used flame to transform copper, clay, and bronze into works of wonder
Standing amongst a handful of the plates and pots and vases and bronzes and sculptures that represent his life's work, Ishmael Soto gestures to a smallish photograph of a kiln made of bricks and proceeds to talk about building the first such kiln at the University of Texas for its Department of Art & Art History. It's a relatively offhand comment, not intended to carry any more weight than any of his other remarks in this gallery talk at Mexic-Arte Museum, yet from it springs a pair of simple but profound realizations about this man: 1) He has been at the business of making art for a long time; and 2) The work that he makes is not complete until it has been touched by fire.
Now, when we say long, we're not so much focusing on Ishmael Soto's age, for while this Austin native celebrates his 75th birthday on the last day of this month, you likely wouldn't guess it from his appearance not from that steady stance and strong grip as yet undimmed by time and bright face, which, snowy beard notwithstanding, looks to belong to a considerably younger man. No, we're reckoning longevity here in terms of the city's life, in terms of history, which tells us much more about why Mexic-Arte's retrospective of his past and present work "Vessels and Inspirations: Ceramic and Sculptural Works of Ishmael Soto" by title is so significant.
You see, this is an artist who began his career long before Mexic-Arte came into being (before Laguna Gloria Art Museum, too, as a matter of fact), before I-35 split Austin so irrevocably into west and east, before UT's art department even had its own building. At the time the early Fifties art classes were held in some army barracks that had been slapped up during World War II just west of Waller Creek, where the Winship Drama Building sits today. The department wasn't even as old as most of the students in it then, having been established (along with the departments of drama and music) in 1937. Which means that young Soto was around for those illustrious first and second generations of instructors Dallas Nine painters Everett Spruce and William Lester; Fort Worth Circle painter Kelly Fearing; painters Ralph White and Michael Frary; printmaker Constance Forsyth; and sculptors William McVey, Paul Hatgil, and, of course, Charles Umlauf as they were still shaping the department and the city's earliest career artists. Now, that's not to say that Austin had no artists at that time or before (leave us not forget Elisabet Ney, the mother of us all), but with the creation of UT's department of art and the stellar congregation of artists brought to Austin because of it, a shift occurred, intensifying the development of contemporary art here and the people who create it, thus sowing the seeds for the diverse and vibrant visual-arts scene we know in Austin today.
Ishmael Soto was present to experience and contribute to that, first as a student at UT in the mid-Fifties, then, after obtaining his master's from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and a few years teaching pottery at the San Antonio Art Institute, as a teacher at UT in the late Sixties and early Seventies. For the past 20 years, he has continued to share his knowledge and skill by teaching art at Austin Community College. And, of course, throughout the five-decade span of his career a span stretching halfway back to the seminal Ney herself! Soto has been making his own art, bronze figurines and ceramic dishware and copper abstracted teapots and more that make up a body of work as broad as the time frame in which it was crafted.
And he's still at it, still adding to that already sizable body of work, producing new vases and plates and sculptures and not merely the occasional piece to keep his hand in, either. Round the corner from Mexic-Arte's sampling of work from the first four-fifths of Soto's career, and you'll find fully half the main gallery devoted to his more recent work, a couple dozen pieces, most of them from the last few years. Clearly, this is someone who is not just still able to produce but who possesses a burning desire to do so, who's still consumed by that fire to create.
And fire, of course, is instrumental to what Soto does. We think of the potter at his wheel, his hands shaping the damp clay, but his work is not done until it has been kissed by flame to harden the clay and set the glaze. And while some sculptors are able to make their work with their hands and some sharpened tools, others require fire to shape their materials and join them. It puts in their hands that most transformative of elements, the one that generates a kind of metamorphosis, and its very presence adds something primal, something mythic, to the act of creation. It puts the artist in touch with the beginnings of things, the essence of them.
And in Soto's art, you encounter again and again the primal, the mythic, the essential. In his sculptures, he strips forms down to their most basic visual components a human body, an animal, a teapot distilled to geometric lines, arcs, and angles while managing to retain the gesture and character of the thing being represented. On a vase is scratched the image of a couple of deer running, and while they consist of little more than outlines, they are unmistakable as deer, just as the ones painted in caves by the earliest human artists are. In one sculpture, two underwater divers show little in the way of figurative detail, and yet the position of their bodies tilted downward, chests low and legs high, with arms outstretched and the peculiar twist to them read so clearly as swimming that we can almost see the body of water through which they're diving. A blockish figure perched on the front of a stool has no face and no hands, but its forward placement, with wrists resting on the front edge of the stool and the legs set together with feet almost on point, create an impression of propriety, even delicacy, that's recognizable from our experience. We know what we're seeing.
And those teapots, those outsized copper contraptions that have made up much of Soto's work for the past few years. The sculptor appears to be having a good bit of fun abstracting these forms, stripping the skin off the kettle and suggesting the shape with metal tubes fused together in various groupings. At times, these sculptures resemble branches bound together or look to be just chaotic clusters of pipes. But Soto has taken care to include the fundamental elements that say teapot, and when you focus your gaze, there they are just as they are in the children's song: There is the handle, there is the spout. Of course, a teapot is such a commonplace object, so linked to domesticity that an abstracted version, especially one as large as a microwave oven, is likely to strike you as a little whimsical. However, once you can see the thing it is, you can also begin to appreciate how the artist has transformed it from that familiar household item into something unexpected, surprising, exotic even, and they can become works of transfixing beauty, the graceful curves of the pipes looping around and around, the straight tubes establishing planes and also thrusting through them, the openness of the space in the form, leaving form undefined but suggested. Each sculpture is an everyday kitchen implement transformed into a lesson in geometry.
That Ishmael Soto is capable of such wonders as he heads into his 76th year should make plain why Mexic-Arte is honoring him with this exhibition. Fifty years ago, as an arts scene was emerging in his hometown, he was in the midst of it, a pioneer on Austin's creative front, a leading Latino artist. A half-century later, he is still in the midst of it, still showing us how it's done. He's still wielding the fire, and we are transformed.
"Vessels and Inspirations: Ceramic and Sculptural Works of Ishmael Soto" is on display through April 1 at Mexic-Arte Museum, 419 Congress. For more information, call 480-9373, or visit www.mexic-artemuseum.org.